Multi-hyphenate artist ChelseaDee Harrison led creatives through a history-based, experimental journey that not only birthed powerful artistic projects, but unearthed captivating and unknown stories that deserve to be shared and celebrated.
“We spent four weeks learning about different pre-Civil War free Black towns in the DMV region,” said Harrison, creator of the Free Black Chesapeake Experience and founder of Wild Seed Productions, LLC. “Then we did experimental art exercises where we used our imagination to consider who these people were and the legacy of their lives that was erased in the historical record, or that we don’t really delve into. So we were considering art, history and legacy.”
On Saturday, July 8, dozens came to Fort Circle Park in Northeast D.C. to witness the investigative and creative work presented by the intentionally intergenerational, inaugural cohort of the Free Black Chesapeake Experience. With the project, artists ages 15 to seasoned seniors, were inspired to research history, create captivating artistic responses and share their work with others.
“They shared with our community what they learned, they shared with the community what they loved about the experience. Some people contemplated their own legacy and descendants, some people contemplated their own ancestors,” Harrison told The Informer.
In addition to learning little-known history, the event offered an opportunity for networking, sharing ideas and expanding knowledge. The cohort presented art of all kinds – from poetry, film, visual arts and photography. As part of the celebration, other local creatives were present to offer their artistic, culinary, horticultural and entrepreneurial expertise.
“We got together to celebrate the cohort and.. learn a little bit about food and culture. We had a chef demonstration out here that guided us through a really great conversation about food culture, agriculture – how does the Black experience connect to agriculture? How can we find power in food and growing our own food,” Harrison explained. “It was a gallery garden, a garden of ideas, a garden of art that we were sharing with people.”
Chef Shawn Lightfoot, who offered a culinary presentation featuring locally grown produce, also emphasized the importance of community.
“We’ve got to support each other,” Lightfoot said..
While the networking, interactive photo booth, and mapmaking and crafts station were added bonuses, the main focus of the event was remembering the free Black communities that thrived in the Chesapeake region and engaging with the artists doing the work to examine their lives and legacies.
Commemorating Legacies, Reimagining Narratives, Creating Art
Cohort member, local filmmaker and artist Britt Sankofa, an admitted history buff, said she had a wonderful experience diving into the world of free Black communities pre-Civil War. Having grown up in the D.C. area, she particularly enjoyed studying local history and learning creative techniques and tools to artistically respond to the often ignored, but important people and stories.
“I’ve really loved learning about local [stories]– my place, my ancestry,” Sankofa told the Informer. “I learned about ‘character tabulation,’ which is basically giving names to some of the stories that we hear in history. You’ll read something and it’ll say, ‘Negro woman or Negro male,’ but you’ll see names attached to it. So giving these people’s voices, I think, is very important.”
A tool that particularly captured Sankofa’s interest was “blackout poetry,” a style that can be seen in her Free Black Chesapeake Experience final arts pieces.
“We learned blackout poetry, where you have a big text and you erase different words to create a new piece.”
From historic records, to literary works and learning about the first cookbook published by a Black woman (“A Domestic Cookbook: Containing a Careful Selection of Useful Receipts for the Kitchen,” by Malinda Russell) the cohort pulled from a lot of various sources to find inspiration.
Historic inspiration proffered major creativity, which was Harrison’s hope from the beginning.
“My hope for the cohort experience was to give them permission, remind them of their creative selves. They are artists, they are creatives. Creative expression is natural to us and we should be constantly expressing because it’s constructive and it’s community building,” emphasized the artist, who is set to release a documentary on the Free Black Chesapeake Experience this fall.
Further, Harrison said she wants the cohort, which included students, health professionals, working artists and more, to continue spreading the good news of the free Black communities in the Chesapeake region.
“I hope that they go, travel and tell people, and ask: ‘Do you know the whole story of American history? Do you know the little pockets? Do you know about the byways off the highways of American history? … Do you really know my people, our story?’” she explained.
The Free Black Chesapeake Experience creator also emphasized that the cohort’s newfound knowledge should bring a heightened sense of pride.
“I feel like that little nugget of precious information that they’ll carry around with them, I hope it puts an iron rod in their back and lets them know: your history is important, your history matters, your history is rich, deep, varied,” Harrison said. “And don’t let anybody tell you that you were only one way, or your descendants or your ancestry was only one way.”